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Arizona wildfire disrupts flights, threatens air quality in New Mexico

By Ben Smith, For CNN
June 7, 2011 6:42 a.m. EDT
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Record-setting wildfire in Arizona
  • NEW: National Weather Service issues red flag fire alert for Tucson
  • Arizona evacuee calls trailer life "horrible"
  • Four flights into the Albuquerque airport are diverted by wind and smoke
  • The fire has scorched 233,552 acres in eastern Arizona

(CNN) -- One of the worst wildfires in Arizona history is beginning to threaten neighboring New Mexico as spillover smoke fueled by high winds has disrupted flights and prompted an air quality alert on the other side of the border, authorities said Tuesday.

Wildfire smoke prompted scheduled flights from Salt Lake City, Houston, Seattle and California's Oakland into Albuquerque International Sunport to be diverted, according to a statement released by airport officials late Monday.

"The Sunport is open, but the decision to land is at the individual airlines' discretion," the statement read.

The National Weather Service in Albuquerque on Monday issued an air quality alert in five counties along or near the Arizona border. The weather service issued a "red flag" extreme fire warning for southwest New Mexico and much of southern Arizona, including Tucson for Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Arizona authorities issued an evacuation order for the town of Greer Monday and advised residents of Springerville and Eagar to prepare to leave.

New Mexico officials issued a similar warning for the town of Luna, according Terri Wildermuth, a spokeswoman for the Incident Management Team that is overseeing firefighting efforts.

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Some Arizonans displaced by the fire have second-guessed their decisions to leave their homes. Displaced resident Patrick Tureson told Phoenix-based CNN affiliate KNXV that life as evacuee is "horrible."

"I don't have a lot of hope right now," Tureson said.

Tureson said he and his wife, Randa, received a call from fire officials Sunday night recommending they abandon their Coyote Canyon home.

"We wanted to stay but ended up leaving because it was getting worse and worse," Tureson told KNXV. "That fire was headed right towards me. It's just a bad situation."

The Turesons now live in a trailer behind Jesus First Community Church in Springerville, where the advancing fire could force them to relocate a second time.

The Wallow fire, currently ranked as the third largest in Arizona history, has scorched 233,552 acres so far, most of it in the Apache National Forest along the state's eastern border, according to Wildermuth. However, low humidity and high winds are fueling fires elsewhere in the state.

That includes three separate blazes that have consumed 165,017 acres in the Coronado National Forest, one of which has been burning since May 8, according to InciWeb, an Internet state-by-state database of active wildfires and other disasters.

The National Weather Service lifted a red flag alert and a fire weather watch for most of northern Arizona on Tuesday. However, conditions in the Wallow fire zone might not be much different than they were Monday, according to Weather Service meteorologist Robert Bohlin in Flagstaff. The forecast calls for winds of up to 30 mph in eastern Arizona, which could spark spot fires outside the fire zone.

The winds have hampered the efforts of 2,515 firefighters who've come to Arizona from across the United States to battle the blaze. That includes grounding planes that otherwise could be used to douse the flames from the air, Wildermuth said.

On Monday, the size of the Wallow fire jumped 21 percent as it spread to more than 40,000 acres.

"We had a hard day today," Joe Reinarz, an incident commander, told those attending a town hall meeting in Greer on Monday. "I don't know exactly where that fire is at this moment, because it is moving so fast."

The eastern Arizona wildfire, which began May 29, has forced the closure of the Apache National Forest and prompted the evacuation of about 3,000 people, said Mark Weldon of the Arizona Red Cross.

Some 2,000 of those are in Alpine, about 700 are in Greer, 200 to 300 are in Nutrioso, and fewer than 100 are in Sunrise.

"Tomorrow, (the wind) is supposed to pick back up all through Thursday," said Reinarz. "We've got two or three days ahead ... that will try all of us."

The U.S. Forest Service said the fire is the fourth largest in Arizona's history, but Brad Pitassi of the incident management team said it is the third largest. While there have been no significant injuries so far, officials and area residents complained of heavy smoke that has blanketed the area like fog.

The fire has bedeviled fire crews with its unpredictable path, thanks to wind gusts that have carried burning embers up to three miles.

Apache County Deputy Chief Sheriff Brannon Eagar on Monday evening urged people in the area, even if they haven't been ordered to evacuate yet, to get ready to leave.

"They can't predict how fast it's going to go," Eagar said at the town hall event in Greer. "So make sure, please, you get ready.

"If I can convince anybody, please go. It'll make your life so much easier," he added. "This thing is huge."

The fire has not only forced the evacuation of thousands of people, it has also disrupted the wedding plans of couple that had planned to be married on Sunday atop Mount Lemmon, where the pair first met. The closing of the Apache National Forest has forced Roni Handsman and Andy Dennehy to move the ceremony elsewhere.

"My heart is there, my heart and soul are to be married up there on Mount Lemmon," Handsman told CNN.

Said Dennehy, "We're going have to find some place else to have our wedding. It's difficult to do that in such a short notice."

CNN's Phil Gast and Dana Ford contributed to this report.

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